THE MARTYRS AND THE MASSACRE:
Background of the Martyrs
June 21, 2021 marks the 39th anniversary of the Bulacan Massacre, where five peasant organizers, all of whom were in their twenties, were abducted during a meeting by government forces and subsequently found dead. Today, we remember these five, collectively known as the Bulacan Martyrs, who sacrificed their time, comfort, and ultimately their lives to promote the interests, welfare, and rights of farmers in Central Luzon.
With the 1972 declaration of Martial Law, President Ferdinand Marcos exercised unbridled control over the country and left little room for localized mass movements. Within days of the declaration of martial rule, Marcos ordered the imprisonment of many political rivals, critics and activists challenging his authority. Resistance was almost always met with violent suppression, coloring the submission of most people for much of the decade. Many Filipinos chose to remain silent, fearing the repressive dictatorship. As the decade progressed, there were some who began to fight for their own rights, such as students, graduates and young workers, who possessed the youthful vigor and optimism needed to spark the flame of activism. In Bulacan, there were five notable individuals who fought not only for themselves, but also forwarded the cause of farmers in their province.
In 1970’s Meycauayan, Teresita Llorente helped her parents operate a small restaurant. She was business-savvy, astute, and hardworking, but her passion lay in social justice work. She was part of the local parish choir and a member of the Pamparokyang Kilusan ng Kabataang Kristiyano (PKKK). Though a teenager at the time, her involvement in the parish’s activities enlightened her to the problems in their community, especially when she once immersed herself with protesting textile factory workers.
Also participating in parish-based activities in the same city was Danilo Aguirre, a high school graduate. He helped host educational discussions for people to know their rights amid repression. When not busy with church work, he helped his family as a market vendor or participated in rallies on the streets. In 1981, he even volunteered as a watcher for the elections.
Some ways north in Malolos, Edwin Borlongan can be found with his fellow catechists of the Pamparokyang Samahan ng mga Katekista (PASKA). Borlongan finished elementary and high school as a working student, helping his parents make ends meet. He finished a course in automotive servicing in Samson Technical School in Manila and eventually became a driver-mechanic in Tondo. Though he barely dabbled in politics, he became exposed by 1978, when he joined a Metro Manila-wide noise barrage in opposition to the Interim Batasang Pambansa elections. From then on, he started helping in campaigns, especially for students fighting for their rights.
Heading westward to Hagonoy, a progressive artist group Galian sa Arte at Tula (GAT) often brought people from the community to watch politically charged plays by the Philippine Educational Theatre Association (PETA). The political underpinnings of these performances woke the consciousness of young fisherman Constantino Medina. Though he spent most of his time working, he allotted time to read and learn, becoming inculcated with the realities of Philippine society. He was a high school graduate and his friends even believed that he was well-equipped to become a lawyer.
Education was also the strong suit of Renato Manimbo, a graduating mechanical engineering student from FEATI University in Manila. He became active in the FEATI student council scene in the late 1970’s, acceding to its presidency for two terms during a time when protests on students’ rights and tuition fee increases were escalating. He spoke in rallies, held educational discussions and was even a founding member of the League of Filipino Students (LFS). He was also among the group of students who brought banners condemning the Marcos administration’s continuing deplorability in 1981 during the mass of Pope John Paul II.
Background of the Farmers’ Movements
The Pope’s arrival in Manila on February 17, 1981 received worldwide media coverage. Exactly a month prior, Marcos issued Proclamation No. 2045 in front of an audience of high-ranking officials, military men, journalists and other esteemed guests, declaring the lifting of Martial Law. Marcos cited that “anarchy has been successfully checked,” “leftist-rightist rebellion has been substantially contained,” and that for the Filipinos “the time has come to consolidate the gains attained by the nation under a state of martial law by assuming their normal political roles and shaping the national destiny within the framework of civil government and popular democracy.”
Many received this with apprehension. They viewed it as a performative requisite for Marcos to legitimize his administration and maintain the facade of democracy before setting up an audience with the Pope. There was little confidence that the lifting of Martial Law would bring about tangible changes. The 1973 Constitution allowed Marcos to continue enacting and promulgating laws, orders, and decrees and to enforce those he enacted and promulgated prior to the lifting of Martial Law. The military continued to operate virtually untethered on the same basis of suppressing subversion. Marcos also reiterated that “public safety continues to require a degree of capability to deal adequately with elements who persist in endeavoring to overthrow the government by violent means.” Once the cosmetic lifting of Martial Law had served its purpose, reports of atrocities once again painted the daily lives of the Filipino people.
The likes of Manimbo took to the streets during the speech of Pope John Paul II to manifest their grievances in front of a wider audience. It was their hope that doing so could pressure the government into acquiescence. It may have been one of the safest avenues for protest, for under the watchful eyes of international media, it would be difficult for them to be violently dispersed. More and more people were becoming open to the idea of participating in demonstrations amid the worsening of the country’s human rights situation. However, without media coverage, they remained susceptible to attacks and abuses.
On February 1, coconut farmers of Quezon were marching to Guinayangan to protest the usurious coconut levy collection. They were blocked by government troopers and shot at. Though two were killed and many were injured, the incident received little coverage and was even dismissed by officials as as an encounter with the New People’s Army (NPA). Just a few months later, on June 14, coconut farmers in Camarines Norte were marching to Daet to protest the same when they were also fired upon by forces of the Philippine Constabulary (PC). Four were killed and some forty to fifty were injured, but official news reports on the incident again pinned it on the NPA. Later that year, on December 19, residents of Culasi in Antique, rallying against a newly deployed PC company and exorbitant taxes on their farm products, were stopped by soldiers on the Bacong Bridge. When they refused to yield, they were also shot. Five were killed and many were injured.
These were just some of the massacres reported in 1981, all of which were perpetrated by government forces against mostly farmers and their sympathizers. These would have been enough to dissuade people against organizing or protesting for similar goals. However, there were still those who were unfazed and resolute. They believed that the cause they were fighting for was for life or death all the same. With their livelihood and their community under constant threat from crony capitalists and military elements, there was no choice.
Among such people were the aforementioned Llorente, Aguirre, Borlongan, Medina and Manimbo of Bulacan. Though they came from different walks of life, they were brought together and became friends through their common goal of forwarding the rights of farmers in Bulacan. In 1981, the Alyansa ng Magbubukid sa Gitnang Luzon (AMGL), despite being a nascent organization, had already taken actions to demand a genuine agrarian reform program to be implemented for the benefit of farmers in Central Luzon. However, the organization was still looking to extend its reach into Bulacan, where farmers were reportedly being subjugated and harassed by landowners and their private armies. In order to establish a base and mitigate maltreatment against the farmers, they put up a call for volunteer organizers. When word reached them, all five, without hesitation, enlisted for the program.